What to Think About How to Think

When discussing “math phobia” our neighbor, a psychotherapist, said, “I can’t think mathematically.”

My son said, “Then you can’t think.”

She was taken aback. “Of course I can think. I just can’t think mathematically.”

My son said, “See, you’re not thinking.”

The conversation ended there.

Do you see? My son understands logic, which is a subset of mathematics. He knows that to say, “I can think; I just can’t think mathematically,” makes no more sense than saying, “I can drive; I just can’t make left turns.”

Try picking the right room air conditioner or planning your retirement without thinking mathematically. You can’t do it. Of course, you can exist without knowing how to do these things yourself, but if you do, you will be having others do some of your thinking for you. This is fine in the case of an air conditioner but it can be disaster when it comes to your retirement. If the guy at the store sold you the wrong air conditioner, you’ll know by August but by the time you discover that your retirement planner got it wrong it will be too late.

I understood all this when I was 16 except that: 1) I mostly thought mathematically, and, 2) I wasn’t thinking about retirement at all.

Now I know better. I understand why colleges require both Math and Verbal SAT scores.

Just as you can’t think very deep mathematical thoughts without writing down numbers and mathematical symbols, you can’t think about much else without writing down words.

Don’t believe me? Try some experiments.

First, plan your retirement in your head without paper, computer or calculator. You might already have performed this experiment.

Now try planning your retirement with the aid of numbers, a calculator, some financial models and a bit of data. When you are done, compare your results to the first experiment. Scary?

Next make a major decision that doesn’t involve mathematics without writing down words: Should I go to college? Should I take this job? Should I quit this job? Should I start this business? Should I marry this person? Should I divorce this person? Perhaps you’ve already made a big decision without writing down your thoughts.

Now, just as an experiment, treat your next (or most recent) major life decision as if it were a serious writing assignment; something worthy of a semester’s grade in college. And not just any grade but an A+. A paper that prompts your professor to say, “Wow, you could base a life on thinking like that!”

Don’t just write down your thoughts but edit them. Write down the opposite of your thoughts and contrast them to your first thoughts and then decide which you want to keep. Sleep on it. Forget about it and go out to a party. Incorporate any 2 A. M. insights and then reconsider them when you’re sober. No bullet points. No PowerPoint. Full sentences only. Subject. Verb. Noun. Have you considered everything? Are your words convincing?

Then read what you wrote out loud. Does it sound convincing? If you believe it, try reading it to another person.

When you are done, compare your final version with to your first draft and then think back to how hard it was to get that first draft onto paper. The distance between where you are now and where you were before you started can be measured in thoughts; thoughts you couldn’t have kept straight without writing things down.

When you declare your essay complete; act. Keep your words around. Later, compare your predicted future to what is now your recent past. Did you write well? Probably not. Most things take practice. Repeat this experiment from now on and you’ll get better.

You might say, “I’m not going to write an essay on whether I’m going to marry my lover. We’re in love. It isn’t an essay topic.”

Fine. But you can still write things down. If you don’t think people can write about love then where have you been?

Write a love letter worth mailing. Then mail it. A love letter is not just a letter to your lover; it is a gift of love to your lover in letter form. If you are like me, you’ll find that you either love the process or you hate the process and your feelings about the process will vary depending on the lover. So it’s not the process at fault.

Describe your lover in the third person as if you were painting a picture of a newly introduced character in a novel. Show it to some friends who know your lover. Do they think you got it right? If not, you might be in for a surprise when you stop producing, or responding to, the dopamine that floods your brain when “in love.” (Scientists have shown that this will happen within 12 months, 18 at the max.)

Do you find it hard to express your feelings but you still want to get married? OK. When are you going to start working on that? Or do you think marriage has nothing to do with expressing feelings?

To say that you know how to think without knowing how to write is like saying you know how to drive without knowing how to turn right.

Do you want to go through life without control of the steering wheel?

If you don’t know how to think mathematically, then you don’t know how to think.

If you don’t know how write, then you don’t know how to think.

If you feel these statements are false then you are feeling but you’re not thinking.[1]


[1] I am open to the possibility that I am wrong on this so feel free to make your case and mail it to me.

(Note: A few months after publishing this a woman wrote to say when she first read it she was furious and convinced I was wrong. So she sat down to write a letter and after an entire weekend attempting to compose her thoughts she realized I was right.)

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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